Unprecedented. It comes at you several times a week, jumping off the page or screen to inform you of yet another breach of normality. Maybe it’s like woke or cancelled or, from an earlier (and I’d argue more innocent) generation of repurposed language, far out. But the difference is, unprecedented is not repurposed. Its meaning is straightforward. It means what it always has. What’s novel here is what it’s referring to, all it encompasses: former presidents, and every aspect of the justice system in this country, including its forward march into the business of all matters medical, for which, I would guess, it has few or zero qualifications.
I am all for new ideas, approaches, and solutions, though generally new is not as convenient as ringing in the old and tried. What’s failed once doesn’t go away, it lies in wait for its opportune moment. And while I’m not so keen on clever new ways to twist and tangle the laws of this country, I’m reminded that something as seemingly immutable as law or ethical behavior, is actually subject to the same fluctuation as everything else. It can all be tweaked, stretched, litigated, seen through a different lens.
There’s a reason Moses received the Ten Commandments on stone tablets when they could have arrived on papyrus. They could have been drawn in the sand. Or there might have been a voice from the sky, in keeping with oral tradition. But no. Stone. Good old enduring rock. That was the message: these rules are forever. Too bad there wasn’t a geologist in the house who could point to a lump of limestone and say, That used to be an ocean. Or a column of basalt and say, That used to be a rumbling volcano. Forget forever. Things change. One thing becomes another. Get used to it.
And this is the lesson at the heart of unprecedented: newness, change, uncertainty, they’re a necessary part of our lives. Ask Darwin. He’ll tell you. Ask my friend who just fell in love with the right man this time, though and because “he wasn’t like any of the others.” We should go out and do something unprecedented every day. It takes courage to move off the seat we occupy so heavily, day after day, year after year. We fear the unknown, despite the fact that we’re walking right into it.
In these unprecedented times, on a day when I’m willing to look at things from a different angle, I give thanks for the practice of living in limbo. Not this, not that, it’s a time that defies our constantly conceptualizing minds and their habit of constructing realities that suit us. Suit us, yet disappoint us over and over again as our plans for forever don’t stick. Unprecedented opens doors (and closes some too). Imagine walking out into the night and seeing the sky in its starry entirety instead of as a collection of named constellations. Imagine the whole without the distraction of what we are taught to see. It’s intimate, that kind of knowing. When we let go of the convenience of constructed realities and reach beyond them to a purer kind of understanding, that’s when we can appreciate the open opportunity of unprecedented.
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